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hitting the sled in furniture city :: david peak

The year was 1939 – the last year of the furniture recession – and I was in the third grade. My parents had been divorced for three years, not the most stylish decision at the time, especially in our conservative Christian neighborhood on Grand Rapids’ East side – Furniture City as they used to call it back then.

Two years older and seemingly a lifetime wiser, my brother Brian had been able to do something that fall I’d only fantasized about: he’d joined the football team – and gotten one of those cool, orb-like helmets that the National Football League had made regulation that same year.

They had weekly games in the hick towns surrounding Grand Rapids: Lowell, Rockford, Cedar Springs. Couple those with practice three times a week and you had a full-blown commitment on your hands – a commitment that no fifth-grader could handle without the support of a parent.

Mom and Dad were still working out the kinks of the divorce. It was my dad’s weekend to take us. My brother was due back from a football game at around two in the afternoon. My mom told him that he’s supposed to meet their school bus – a honking big thing the school had painted up yellow that fall – in the parking lot of the Wealthy Street High School.

Believe me – this was a treat. Most of the kids’ parents on the block didn’t give them rides places. But our dad was different. He was important. Or so we’d been told.

Dad picked me up and took me to lunch, and when we finished we’d drive over to the school and park in the lot.

Two o’clock rolled around and no school bus.

It was fall, but early fall. The leaves on the trees were gold, not quite brown. The air was crisp but the sun still burned bright in the afternoon. I sat in the passenger seat of my dad’s car – a four-door Mercury, apple red, with a V-8 engine that used to rumble like a sleeping giant, rattling the hood ornament – and I swear I could feel anger radiating from him. He just sat there, hands in his lap, slouched, his brown suit jacket looking wrinkled in the dull, early afternoon sunlight. His face hung loose, the corners of his mouth pulled down like the caricature of a frown.

The March of Time was playing on the Mercury’s AM radio. The warm voice of the announcer filled the car. They were quoting this guy named Harry Hopkins – some kind of politician – and as soon as his name was mentioned, my dad perked up in his seat.

Hopkins said, “. . . businesses finding it increasingly difficult to progress in the face of a divided labor front. Government is doing what it can to end that division.” Dad clapped his big hands together once and the sound nearly cut through the center of my head.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I became aware of several things: like why my dad didn’t ever want to hear anything about the war on the radio, and why he was always listening for the words labor or business or manufacturing.

But then, as quickly as he’d become excited, he grew stormy again. Who knows what he was thinking? Maybe he thought my mom had lied to him about where to pick Brian up. Maybe he thought he was late. Maybe he thought that he’d misunderstood.

He sprang to life, thrashing at the steering wheel so suddenly that it made me jump, the back of my head coming up against the window. Now, I don’t feel the need to write down what he said here, but let’s just say he blistered the air with his oaths.

My heart was pounding. My dad was angry, I knew that much. About what I couldn’t say for sure. I knew that my brother was late, so I blamed him. Why can’t he just be where he’s supposed to be? If he’d been here by now I wouldn’t have to be sitting here, watching my dad punch the steering wheel of his car. I wouldn’t have to be scared like this.

I fumbled with the door, popped it open and hopped outside. I’d half-expected my dad to yell something after me, maybe to even come running, but he didn’t do either. He just stayed in there, cursing to himself.

The Wealthy School was a massive redbrick structure – like one of the factories that surrounded Heritage Hill downtown. It loomed behind me as I dashed through the parking lot, out onto the empty practice football field.

Large pockets of dusty mud had eaten away at the patchy grass. One of the wooden goalposts had been knocked over and it lied flat, a huge, yellow capital H. This was where my brother had his football practice. This was where he was supposed to be.

I walked over to the massive, silver-painted sled – a brand new acquisition for the team that year, they’d even written about it in the paper, calling it a “Super Streamlined Sled.” I’d seen enough newsreels about football to know what to do what with it. I squatted in front of it, placed one hand on the ground, the other on my bent knee. And then I charged.

I’m not really sure what I was thinking. Maybe I thought I could move it. Maybe I thought it would make me feel better to hit something really hard. Maybe I was thinking about my brother. I rammed my shoulder into the padding at full-speed, lost my balance, hooked a hard turn and collided with the metal piping of the sled’s frame.

I don’t think I was lying there long – just a few moments. My ears were filled with a humming noise, the white noise of the suburban outdoors.

I got up and rubbed my shoulder, realized there was no one around to complain to, no one to know that I felt pain. So I walked back to my dad’s car, half-expecting to see the yellow school bus when I made it through the playground, coming into view of the lot.

No bus. Just my dad’s Mercury. Just my dad inside. His floppy fedora looking old, worn.

I climbed back in the car and slammed the door behind me. He had the radio off at this point. “We’re driving to your mother’s house,” he said. “There’s no one here.”

Through the windshield I watched my dad storm up the walkway to my mom’s front door, watched him slam the knocker a few times, kick it once with his shiny brown shoe. My brother came to the door, came outside and stood on the porch, still in his uniform, his jersey-shirt baggy, hanging low on his little arms. I could hear his voice but I couldn’t make out his words. My brother turned and ran back inside. My dad came after him and kicked the door again.

The game had been a forfeit. It had ended hours early. If we’d gone to it instead of going to lunch we would’ve known that. My brother had waited for over an hour, his coach had taken him home, assuming that our dad – like a regular old deadbeat – had forgotten all about it.

But these sort of details, they only come to you in retrospect. Like how I never knew that my dad was instrumental in spreading the word about the home rule charter that abolished aldermanic systems in Grand Rapids, replacing it instead with one of the first commission-manager forms of government in the country. How amongst the furniture workers of the city, my dad was a hero.

And it’s difficult to keep those details in mind. It’s so much easier to remember the way you felt – the way things felt. And so I still don’t see him as a hero. Not that day.

Later that night, in my room, playing with a die-cast model of my dad’s Mercury that he’d given me for my birthday that summer. My room was small, wall-papered in some awful floral pattern that was sissy as hell, dark oak runners where the walls met the floor.

The only light was coming from a lamp on the side table next to my bed – really more of a cot and sleeping back combination.

My dad walked into the room, tie undone, shoes off, a hole in one of his green socks exposing his big toe. He was carrying a drink in his hand, something brown, ice cubes clinking around. He strode across the room, plopped down on my bed and said, “Davey, there’s something I got to explain to you.”

I was kneeling on the floor. I turned to him. He looked orange in the lamp-light, his skin pallid, waxy.

“I wasn’t mad at your brother today,” he said, his face looking heavy, his eyes rimmed in red. He took a sip from his drink. “I mean, I was, but it’s more complicated than that. Look, there’s a lot going on in the world right now – a lot that might affect us in the next few years. And with your mom and me. . . with the way things turned out, it’s even more important. . . Oh, hell, I don’t know.” The springs of the cot creaked as he rose to his feet. He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

I placed my hand atop the die-cast Mercury and thought of the car ride home from my mom’s – after Dad had kicked the door, after Brian had refused to come outside. There was another news program on the radio. And this one had said something about an increase in food costs, about how the price had gone up a full two-percent.

“There’s a lot going on in the world right now – a lot that might affect us in the next few years.”

I thought about my brother, waiting in that parking lot, scared, alone. And I thought about hitting the sled. How I could’ve hit that thing all day and it would never, ever move.

——

David Peak‘s work has appeared in Lamination Colony, Dark Sky Magazine, The Corduory Mtn., Willows Wept Review, and Hair Trigger, among others. He is also the editor of Ghost Factory Magazine. His first novel, The Rocket’s Red Glare, (Leucrota Press) will be released in the spring of 2010. He lives in Chicago.